Felix Ó Murchadha on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Felix Ó Murchadha

Felix Ó Murchadha is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the National University of Ireland, Galway. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Any answer to the question, what is the philosophy of religion, will depend implicitly at least on how philosophy is understood. To me philosophy is the radical questioning of everything, including and especially itself. To practice philosophy is to be uncertain whether one is actually doing philosophy at all. This is a highly paradoxical situation to be in! With respect to religion what this means is that a philosopher does not come with a ready-made tool kit to investigate religion, anymore than she does with respect to art, science or anything else. The philosophical engagement with religion is one which seeks to allow religion to speak to it, in a manner which is challenging and fruitful – but challenging and fruitful to philosophy not to religion. As a philosopher I don’t see myself as having any responsibilities to religious people or communities, neither in the sense of respecting their sensibilities nor in the sense of critically challenging them. So philosophy of religion is in that sense not about religion at all, it is about what if anything religion can tell us or challenge us regarding the practice of philosophy.

One of the tendencies philosophers of religion display is the attempt to ‘convert’ religion into philosophy, i.e., to understand it as a somewhat primitive philosophical articulation. The strength of Gnosticism in its many forms within the history of philosophy is symptomatic of this. But religion is not philosophy, it is rather one manner of being which philosophers need to reflect upon. One way in which philosophers distort religion is by understanding it as a system of beliefs that …, i.e., as a set of doctrines of one sort or another taking propositional form. But when we view most religions – and this is certainly the case with the three religions of the Book – what we find are a series of beliefs in …. That is not to deny the existence of religious doctrines, but rather to see that those doctrines make sense only as theoretical articulations of prior experiential accounts of trust, hope, faith, despair, longing, disappointment, love, fear, anger. In ritual, architecture, prayer, music, religion expresses such understanding of fundamental existential experience. This is not to say that there are not other non-religious or anti-religious accounts of these experiences and these phenomena, but it is to say that there are specifically religious accounts and specifically religious phenomenalities. If we don’t approach religion on its own terms in this way, philosophy of religion becomes either a defence or a destruction of religion, two sides of a coin of a rather doubtful currency.

The dominant challenge which religion poses philosophy since the origins of the philosophy of religion in the Enlightenment, is to the sovereignty of reason. This challenge is twofold: firstly, that reason cannot claim to be self-grounding; secondly, that reason in its attempts to give an all-encompassing answer to the human quest for meaning ends up destroying that which it is attempting to understand. The rational claim to be self-grounding is rooted in autonomy: the rational self gives itself the law, requires no other source outside itself. But, this is rooted in an overly formal account of reason. A more situated account shows that my rational sense of the world is itself made possible by my prior being affected by the world as that which appears to me as rational. That prior being-affected by the world can be understood as much religiously as scientifically or artistically. Understood in terms of such being-affected by the world, indeed, the religious account is more likely to speak of the beauty, abundance and unity of the world. My point is not that there is no difference here, and it is problematic to speak of the ‘religious’ (and indeed ‘scientific’ or ‘artistic’) account in the singular. Rather, what I would suggest is that the point of philosophy of religion is as much to allow philosophical faiths (and we all have them) to be challenged as it is to critically explore religious faiths.

Furthermore, religious faith limits the calculative side of reason, i.e., that tendency to reduce all possible discourse to that which can be measured and quantified. It does so through many strategies, but one which we find in many religions with different guises is an appeal to love, as that which cannot be comprehended, but which lies at the origins and ends of things. Such an account is particularly resonant for philosophy, itself a discourse of love. On this fundamental level philosophy and religion can come into dialogue with respect to a common source, namely love, but a source understood in different often divergent ways.

My approach to dealing with these questions is a phenomenological one. As I understand it, this approach begins with the claim that all meaning can be traced back to a mode of appearance, which itself can be described in detail. Hence, the philosophical goal is to understand the phenomenality of religious beliefs, practices and expressions, i.e., what their phenomenal basis can be. This is a reflective and critical (in a quasi-transcendental sense) task.

Philosophy of religion comes in many instances close to theology and indeed an influential attack on contemporary phenomenology speaks of a ‘theological turn’. In this respect the philosophy of religion finds itself in an ambiguous relation to a much older tradition of philosophical theology. The arguments for the existence of god, for example, which for many are an essential part of the philosophy of religion, were originally arguments of philosophical theology. But those arguments belong there – Kant’s critique is an insurmountable barrier: I cannot see how, on the one hand, it is possible to do the philosophy of religion, which owes its very existence to Kant’s critical project and, on the other hand, to take the arguments for the existence of god seriously. One may develop sophisticated arguments, but the philosophical basis is missing. Besides, if we look at those arguments for the existence of god in modernity what we find is that god became a philosophical rather than religious signifier, as Pascal saw so clearly. In my practice of philosophy of religion, I read and cite theologians; that seems only right. But while the theologian has some obligations to his religious denomination or to the sacred scriptures or traditions of his community, the philosopher is free of all of that. But out of that freedom I think comes a possibility for openness towards the religious, again.

Philosophy has no greater commitment than to the truth, as Aristotle told us. But that commitment is itself a love of truth. Increasingly philosophers are, I think, loosening themselves from their enthralment to the ‘hard’ sciences (it makes it easier when leading scientists vocally dismiss their efforts!) and in doing so we can understand more the emotionality and embedded commitment of the philosophical pursuit. Such religious concepts as vocation, grace, gift, sacrifice, fidelity, epiphany, revelation can in such a context help reposition the philosophical task, such that the philosophy of religion is not simply a branch of philosophy but an area where philosophical can radically rethink its own basic concepts.

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